Effluent to be turned into drinking water? No thanks – tap water is already a health hazard as it is!

Water is becoming an increasingly precious commodity. This week the Institute of Civil Engineers in the UK suggested that one way to help combat this is to recycle effluent to make drinking water. Doesn’t sound like a great idea, health-wise, does it? Actually, most of tap water is already comes from a sort of effluent ” basically the dirty water that comes out of sinks, baths, showers, washing machines and dishwashers. To get this stuff ‘fit to drink’ takes a lot of processing with a fair few chemicals: for instance, chlorine is usually in there somewhere, and aluminium often features as well. Basically, while tap water may be consumable from a microbiological perspective, it is usually quite heavily tainted with unwanted chemicals.

Not surprisingly, the research suggests that drinking tap water is associated with adverse effects on health including an increased risk of cancer and dementia. And I shouldn’t imagine tap water recycled from effluent would be any better for us either! The relationship between drinking tap water and ill-health is one of those ‘secrets’ the water industry likes to keep quiet. The trade organisations and quangos that represent the water industry often to patronise individuals concerned about tap water who opt for bottled instead, and paint them as foolish hysterics for spending so much money when water is so much cheaper from the tap. My personal view is that I’d rather pay out of my pocket than with my health.

In the attached piece, I explore the tap water issue in more detail. For those that are concerned about the environmental impact of bottled water I suggest at least filtering tap water before drinking.

Observer Column ” 27th July 2003

Statistics show that our thirst for mineral water is ever growing and has swelled the bottled- water industry to a billion-pound-a-year business in the UK. Recently, however, the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) has gone on the offensive in an effort to persuade us that tap water is every drop as good as bottled varieties. The DWI is keen to point out that the vast majority of water samples pass industry standards for levels of impurities. Our attention has also been drawn to the fact that, unlike bottled water, tap water is ‘fresh’ every day, and a fraction of the price to boot. Those of us included to swallow the recent wave of media attention could be forgiven for thinking that shelling out for bottled water is simply chucking money down the drain.

A big believer in keeping the diet as natural and unadulterated as possible, I have been an inveterate drinker of mineral water for the past decade. It is pretty much all we have drunk for the vast majority of our evolution on this planet. Legally, mineral water must emerge from the ground in a state fit to drink. In contrast, tap water starts out life as polluted water and must undergo multi-step processing before it is deemed safe. Several times in the past few years this cleansing process has failed, causing contaminated water to be piped into numerous homes. But my major misgiving is that the cleansing process can leave tap water quite tainted.

The prime disinfecting agent used in the processing of tap water is chlorine. In water, chlorine ca n morph into other compounds known as the trihalomethanes that can be harmful. A review of 10 studies found that drinking chlorinated water was associated with an increased risk of bladder and rectal cancer of 21 and 38% respectively [1]. Consumption of trihalomethanes has also been linked to pregnancy-related problems such as birth defects and miscarriage.

Another potential contaminant is aluminium. A fair amount of science points to this metal as a risk factor for dementia. Research presented this year at a scientific meeting in San Diego showed a link between aluminium in drinking water and risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Research publishing the American Journal of Epidemiology found a doubling of risk of Alzheimer’s disease in individuals whose drinking water contained aluminium at a concentration of 100 micrograms per litre (mcg/l) [2]. I note that the DWI permits twice this level in our tap water.

To my mind, the DWI’s claim that tap water is ‘fresh’ is meaningless; it’s what’s in the water that counts. I reckon mineral water’s natural cleanliness and greater freedom from chemical cleansers sink tap water out of sight. At the very least, I recommend filtering tap water through a jug or plumbed-in unit prior to drinking. I, for one, remain unconvinced by the recent claims for tap water’s clean bill of health.


1. Morris RD, et al. Chlorination, chlorination by-products, and cancer: a meta-analysis. Am J Public Health. 1992 82(7):955-63

2. Rondeau V, et al. Relation between Aluminum Concentrations in Drinking Water and Alzheimer’s Disease: An 8-year Follow-up Study American Journal of Epidemiology 15;1:59-66

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